Viewing a Tour de France Start: Givors, 2013

July 14 is Bastille Day and I am in Lyon looking for signs of the holiday: flags, bunting, fireworks for sale. It is also Sunday and most shops are closed and celebrations appear to be confined to a community fireworks show after dark. Fortunately the trains are running on time and I was able to get up early and catch the 7:30 a.m. train to Givors to watch the start of Stage 15.

This is going to be a brutal day of cycling. At 7:30 I did not need any kind of jacket and it is likely to be 39 degrees (C) in 242.5 kilometers on the top of Mont Vonteux. When my blistered feet bark at me I tell them they could be pedalling up Mont Vonteux and they are silenced.

Too bad I don't read French!
Too bad I don’t read French!

I arrived at Givors Ville (zhee-vor vee) at 8:00 a.m. and went straight into the heart of the village for a chocolate croissant and coffee. I appreciated that every shop specializes and that they prize quality over convenience as I buy the croissant at the La Patisserie and then schlep across to the coffee bar.  At 8:20 I felt braced for the long wait to 10:45 start.  I scouted possible viewing sites and the crowd was still light but the railings were already full.

I climbed a low wall and decided my view was just right.  The parade started and I did not want to miss any of the fun while looking for a better spot.  Everyone around me spoke very little (no) English and my 3 French vocabulary words may have doubled in the last 24 hours but could not support conversation.

The sponsors entertain the waiting spectators with floats and decorated cars and by throwing free hats, energy bars, water, and other sponsor stuff at the crowd. Everyone was enjoying the morning. Thankfully the spot I choose stayed in the shade most of the morning.  Personal space means something different in France and my first squeeze in was a from an older man with a cane who sat on the wall (and on my foot). He was so cheerfully trying to talk to me in French even after I said, with a very bad accent “No parlez vous France.” He said “No parlez vous Englais” and happily continued to speak to me in French. The young woman on the other side of me did her best to translate but her English was very limited. No matter. Trying to catch prizes and hooting and hollering for favorite cycling stars is a universal language.

Stage 15 starting line in Givors on Bastille Day.
Stage 15 starting line in Givors on Bastille Day.

There were several French “artistes” that my next French interloper, who leaped on the wall where I swore there was no space, cheerfully pointed out to me (easy since he was right next to my right ear).  I was thrilled to see the great Eddy Merckx, 5 time winner of the TdeF and holder of record for most stage wins.  Also saw Bernard Hinault up close. You may have seen him on television. As the director of external affairs he is always managing the podium awards ceremony at the end of every stage. His nickname is “The Badger” and he is the author of our word of the trip: poleaxe.  My son Tevis and I watched the Tour in Norway and we saw a brief bio of Bernard Hinault. He is one tough cookie: he rode through a line of striking miners who attempted to block the Tour and leapt off his bike and started swinging. Then a few years ago some protestor thought he would make a statement by interrupting the presentation of the yellow jersey. Hinault did not hesitate and “poleaxed” the protestor (knocked him right off the stage).  Tevis liked the word so much that he has managed to use the word everyday so far.

At about 10:10 the bicyclists began lining up and signing in. Then they moved to the starting line. Earlier than expected, at our 10:30 the red light started flashing on the Program Director’s car and whoof! They began the controlled start and were away.  Just like that the air was out of the balloon and everyone started packing up, including the pros who are in charge of all of the logistics for this mega event.

With a glow of satisfaction I headed to the train station.  When I got there I noticed a group of 3 Canadians looking at signatures on a Canadian flag. Hoping they spoke English I went over and introduced myself and asked them how they got the signatures. One of the them, the young woman in the group, was following the tour for several weeks. She had the most success getting signatures by standing by the area where the riders sign in (and it helps to be a woman as there are few female fans). The guys where were from Manitoba and Ottawa said they had to wear team jerseys and hats to get riders attention. Today they got Dan Martin’s signature, the Irish rider who won an earlier stage.  They were so enthusiastic and were having such a good time without paying a bunch of money for special credentials.  Made me start thinking about future years…

Back in Lyon I wanted to find a place to watch the rest of the Tour with English commentary. So I asked the desk clerk if she could recommend an Irish Pub. She wanted to argue and say they would not be showing the Tour in English. I just asked her to mark the map and I would take my chances. Here I am at Johnny’s Kitchen (Irish pub restaurant) watching the Tour on BBC EuroSport sans air conditioning.

It is hot here so I cannot imagine what it is like on Mont Vonteux that looks like a moonscape and is known for its wind. Add a million CRAZY fans and Bastille Day. I pity the riders. The nasty part of the climb is the last 20 kilometers and the BBC announcers expect Chris Froome (UK, Team Sky)  to kick butt. I hope he does. I like his quiet modesty. There are not as many American fans here and fewer American riders. The drug scandal that rocked Lance Armstrong’s world took out most of the experienced American riders as well. They are out for the season or retired.

In preparation for the trip I started reading Tyler Hamilton’s autobiography. It is a demoralizing read and scary to see what people will do to their bodies (or ask their athletes to do) in pursuit of competitive victory and cash. Mt Ventoux has been mixed up with drugs historically. A Frenchman, Jean Mallejac, collapsed and later recovered in 1955 due to amphetamines.  And this is the mountain where Tom Simpson died due to drug use in 1967; the determined cause amphetamines and alcohol. In 2000, Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani raced to the top fueled by doped blood.

I suspect that this haunted finish did not dampen my enthusiasm because even with drugs this race is a brutal test of human endurance.  For example, today’s climb is 1512 meters over about 20 km. At 20 km marker, Sylvain Chavanel is the first of the breakaway to cross.  No one expects him to beat Froome, Quintana, Contador and Valverde.  The gap is already closing.

Oh my gosh, Chris Froome has thrown down the gauntlet at 7 km and pedaled away like he was on the flat. He is superhuman. Only Quintana is with him at 3 km. Contador has battled back to just 30 seconds behind but the rest of the GC rider are more than a minute back. The BBC announcers are over the moon. They say the toughest part is yet to come. What? Stairs?

Contador has fallen back to 51″ at 1.6 km.  Who will win the stage? Will Quintana and Froome battle for the finish?  No gifts today, Froome just took off at 1.3 km. Froome did it! He beat Quintara by 31″ and Contador by 1’40”.  It will take a lot longer for everyone to finish. EPIC day.

Post Script: The next day was a rest day and Chris Froome was buffeted by questions at the morning press conference about possible drug use. It seems a bit unfair to be accused without any evidence, such is the legacy of the cheaters.

Viewing a Tour de France Finish: Lyon, 2013

I began taking an interest in the Tour de France when Greg LeMond won his first of three Tour de France races in 1986. He was from the Sacramento area and the Sacramento Bee dedicated lots of column inches to his racing. After a few years I began watching it from morning till night–each stage several times–on Versus cable channel. In the fall of 2012, the 100th Tour de France route was announced and I realized that I had the means to see it in person. I called a friend who knows France and determined to focus on a City that offered a finish and a start and settled on Lyon. And that is how I found myself in Lyon France on July 13 to witness the finish of Stage 14.

It was thrilling! We walked a couple of kilometers towards the finish line near the Stade de Gerland (soccer stadium). We were only 1.5 hours before the expected arrival of cyclists. We spent the morning seeing historic Lyon and watched the middle of the race on television. The race route in Lyon was a challenge with one section that looked like Lombard Street in San Francisco, and several hard turns into the last kilometer.  When we left the television we knew there was a breakaway (a group of riders that rides away from the Peleton or the main group of riders), but we did not know if they would be caught. In anticipation of a possible sprint, we picked a spot at the 1 kilometer marker where sprints often get serious and began our vigil.

I learned later from some seasoned Tour followers from Canada, to see the finish near the finish you need to camp out at about 8 a.m. and wait. We missed a lot of the parade (goes by about 2 hours before the finish). The announcers spoke in French, of course. Our neighbor at the barrier spoke a little English and translated. Then we learned he was from Bulgaria and spoke only a little French as well. Still better than our limited vocabulary.

Our Bulgarian friend said that the announcer was mainly telling us to keep our arms and bags behind the barrier and other safety warnings.  Gradually the announcer became more excited and began shouting his announcements with the name “Julien Simon” repeated frequently.  The official cars stopped roaring by and we began to only see gendarmes, then photographers, then we could hear the crowd roar let us know that they were seconds away.

The breakaway was still away! The first couple of riders came on our side of the street and periously close to us. Then there were a few stragglers (still going VERY fast) including American Teejay Van Garderen of BMC.  Several minutes passed and then the crowd roar sounded again and we say the police motor bikes and suddenly, boom: the peleton led by Team Sky and the yellow jersey on Chris Froome. Wow.

I did not learn the actual winner until we got back to the hotel.  Matteo Trentin of Omega Pharma-Quickstep (Mark Cavendish’s team) won the stage.  Julien Simon was close and said in an interview that if there had been a few more turns in the course it might have been a different result. Meanwhile all of the other standings remained the same.

If you are not familiar with the classifications: Overall leader of the Tour with the lowest time wears the Yellow jersey and is currently Chris Froome with a 2’35” lead; the sprinters compete for the green jersey and because there are points along the route and not just for top finishing, Peter Sagan is in green; the King of the Mountains wears red polkadots on a white jersey and Pierre Rolland is KofM; the best young rider, Michal Kwiatkowski of Omega Pharma-Quickstep, must be under 23 and wears white.

After the excitement of the peleton, we walked to the actual finish line to see the set up. I bought souvenirs. My son Tevis had work to do so he peeled back to the hotel. I walked back along the course and stopped for a cold Diet Coke. I relaxed at an outside table and enjoyed a interesting conversation with a couple from Britain who earn a living transporting bicycles for tour groups and follow le Tour on their motorbikes.

I was hooked and wanted more Tour, so when I got back to the hotel I figured out the options for taking the train to Givors in the morning to view the start of Stage 15.

Post Script: Velo reported in the September issue: “It was Trentin’s first win of the Tour –the fourth for OPQS, following Cav’s pair of sprint wins and Martin’s TT victory– and his first win, period, since 2008. Trentin was considering going back to university, but instead opted to race for another year; it turns out he secured a different education, this one at the Tour.’

“When you work alongside a rider like Cavendish, you learn a thing or two,” Trentin said, “I just waited patiently and unleashed my sprint with 100 (meters) to go.”